Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Off Kilter TV: 
Where Horror Rears its Ugly Head on Family Television

South Park Season 15, Episode 7

"You’re Getting Old"

Reviewed by Anthony Servante

Off Kilter TV explores that odd TV episode that doesn't quite fit the series. For example, in RAWHIDE, when the cowboys come across the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (see my review in an earlier issue), the episode enters the supernatural realm, leaving behind stories about cow thieves and Indian conflicts. 

In today's discussion of Off Kilter TV, we examine the television show, SOUTH PARK. While this show sets the rules for being unpredictable, what happens when it takes on the standard structure of a dramatic TV show not uncommon to networks like the WB. Then we have an Off Kilter episode.  

Our story begins with a birthday party. 

Stan Marsh turns ten years old and develops a cynical attitude to the things he loved before his birthday. The catalyst for this change centers around the “Tween Music” he once listened to with his friends so enthusiastically. The problem now is that the music sounds like “shit”. Literally. Like flatulence and diarrhea exploding in cacophonic beat with the Tween songs. Initially, it is only the adults who hear the shitiness of the music. They even try to teach their children about the difference between “fad” music and “classic” music by playing kids a song by the band, The Police. To the kids, The Police sounds like shit. Thus, the metaphor is established: the sound of shit represents the cynical attitude people take toward new things; Tween Music is new to the adults and The Police is new to the kids, and both parents and children hear the same thing: shit.

But the episode moves past the music as Stan not only hears the Tween sound as shitty, but also sees trailers for movies by Kevin James, Adam Sandler, and Jim Carrey as populated by turds and diarrhea mouths. Eventually, everything for Stan starts to sound and look like shit. His closest friends, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman begin to avoid him because of his negativity and cynicism. So, not only is he losing the things he used to love, but also the friends who’ve meant so much to him in life.  At the age of ten, he is diagnosed by his doctor as being a “cynical asshole”, an attitude usually reserved for crotchety old folks.

Meanwhile, Randy Marsh, Stan’s dad, is also undergoing a negative change. Although he hears the Tween Music as crap, he longs to hear the music the way the young kids hear it, the way he heard music when he was a youngster. He pretends to like the Tween songs, and tries to hear beyond the shitty sounds. He starts a band and plays guitar as he flatulates, believing he is recreating Tween Music. His wife scolds him and accuses him of always trying to recapture his youth with his stupid projects. She alludes to his brawling with the Little League Baseball parents, taking up cooking, and playing this crappy music as ways to avoid facing the fact that he is getting old.

Finally, Randy admits the truth. He is attempting to recapture the happiness of his youth because he is no longer happy in his marriage. Sharon, his wife, confesses that she, too, is no longer happy. Furthermore, she says that week after week it is the same old story played over and over; it resets and ends only to be reset once again. And that she can't take it anymore. Randy and Sharon then agree to a divorce. Randy moves out, and Sharon moves herself and the kids to a new neighborhood.

As Landslide by Stevie Nicks plays in the background, Stan goes through the motions as he moves his things into a new house, turns his back on the friends he once loved, and sits alone and faces the setting sun that looks like a glowing turd in the sky. And here with this poignant ending, the controversy began.

The fans and the media believed that South Park was coming to an end. What started as a joke about Tween Music quickly turned into a story structured like a traditional drama TV show. Without the “shit” metaphor, this episode played like a “Dear John” letter to fans. When Sharon talked about “the same story” resetting itself week after week, the media understood and Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park’s creators, were hanging up their animation series to make movies and Broadway musicals; after all, The Book of Mormon was riding the crest of success with its Tony wins and sell-out audiences. The poignancy wasn’t lost on the fans. Matt and Trey were saying goodbye through the break-up of the Marsh family, Randy, Sharon, Shelley and Stan.

Many, many South Park fans admitted that this episode, in fact, made them cry. Divorce. A loss of innocence. A loss of friends. A loss of happiness. We were reminded: We are getting old.

And everywhere Matt and Trey went, the media asked them about the end of South Park. They were overwhelmed by emails and tweets about the sad farewell. The problem was, the South Park creators didn’t know what people were talking about, but the talk show hosts, the gossip rags, and the leagues of South Park geeks continued to seek confirmation about the show’s demise.

But there was no demise. Matt and Trey explained what the show meant and how and why they believed it was misperceived (listen to their commentary below by clicking on the link). The problem, in a nutshell, was that they had virtually used a traditionally structured drama format to tell the story, rather than sustain the “shit” metaphor about Tween Music, which was their original intention. Even Sharon’s speech about the weekly resetting of their lives was a last minute addition to close out the episode, culminating with Stevie Nick’s Landslide and Stan’s acceptance that the world had turned to shit. The South Park creators figured they would “reset” the show after the mid-season hiatus (You’re Getting Old was the last episode of the first half of the season). They realized that they left things hanging but never thought that the fans and the media would respond so overwhelmingly. After all, the show does “reset” every week. It’s a running gag; only the poignancy of the episode and its dramatic structure seemed irreversible, that the gag was over.

But as we have seen, South Park continues. Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman still get into trouble, the rest of the cast still contribute to the storylines, and Matt and Trey yet satirize today’s hot topics. For a brief moment, however, we had an Off Kilter TV episode, and South Park ended in the saddest way possible, not with a laugh but with a frown. And we wept. Luckily, even tears can be reset.

Thank you, readers, for joining us today for our Off Kilter TV episode. Until next we meet, keep your eye glued to the TV screen and give a holler if you spot an Off Kilter show.

Then listen to Matt Stone and Trey Parker discuss the episode after all the controversy settled down.

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